By: Tony Case Industry execs are concerned that newspapers are placing too much emphasis on cosmetic changes and not enough on more substantial improvements, according to a survey sponsored by FACS, conducted by American Opinion Research sp.
ONLY ONE IN four newspaper executives rated the industry as "very healthy" in a recent survey, and most do not believe that it will be in better shape 10 years from now. Of 732 editors, publishers, and advertising and marketing executives polled, publishers were the most optimistic about the condition of the newspaper business. The most pessimistic? Editors. About half of all respondents said that if they had it to do over today, they still would embark on careers in newspapers. But almost as many said they would not follow the same path or were not sure. "The State of the Newspaper Industry 1994" details results of a survey sponsored by the Foundation for American Communications, an educational institution in Los Angeles known by the acronym FACS, and American Opinion Research Inc., the Princeton, N.J.-based research company that conducted the poll. Declining readership was cited as the top threat to newspapers, and a majority of respondents maintained that improving content is the answer to combating the problem. "Declining readership is a symptom well understood by the leaders of our industry," Detroit News editor and publisher and FACS co-chairman Robert Giles said in response to the findings. "Only recently, however, have newspaper people come to agree that content is first among the many reasons readership is in decline." Other major menaces to the medium recognized in the survey were increasing competition for advertising dollars and readers' time and declining readership among young people. At the bottom of the list were union demands, environmental issues, and finding and keeping good carriers. Of those polled, 27% said improving content was key to keeping readers. They recommended focusing on the quality of content, considering readers' needs when determining content and including more interesting information and more local news. Meanwhile, 19% suggested changes on the advertising end. Most respondents said the editorial content of their papers was good. However, fewer than one in seven rated it as excellent. "Newspapers are employing a variety of strategies to improve the editorial quality of their newspapers, starting with the hiring and training of employees," the report said. Of those polled, 27% said they had conducted some type of staff training in the previous year to improve editorial quality, 15% expanded local news coverage in their papers and 14% made design or layout changes. Executives expressed concern that newspapers are placing too much emphasis on cosmetic changes and not enough on more substantial improvements. "Changing the design and adding color may be just a Band-Aid," a publisher was quoted as saying in the report. "We've got to really improve what we're giving people, give them what they need and make it easier for them to find." When asked how the editorial strategy of their newspapers had changed in five years, respondents overwhelmingly said they had begun including more local news coverage. And when asked how newspapers need to change their editorial direction to compete in the future, a majority recommended expanding local coverage. Where advertising is concerned, respondents agreed that newspapers should be more flexible with pricing and more aware of customers' needs. Only 2% said ad rates should be lowered. Of the newspapers represented in the survey, 90% expected to raise ad rates this year. The average projected increase was 4.8%. When asked how best to increase advertising revenues, 18% suggested improving sales staffs or training of staffs and 15% recommended boosting household penetration and readership. Respondents concurred that advertisers have become increasingly demanding ? and what they are requesting most are more and improved readership and survey information, zoning and targeting, and discounts and deals. To a lesser extent, they ask for color and better understanding of their businesses. To boost ad revenues, 23% of respondents said they now rely heavily on special sections, such as bridal and senior citizen pullouts. They also have implemented customized programs for advertisers and increased To build circulation, 23% of those surveyed said they depend on telemarketing. Other methods cited were delivery-improvement programs and, again, increased promotion. The main problems in adding circulation were increasing penetration and getting papers to subscribers earlier in the morning. A majority of those who predicted that the industry will be better off in 10 years cited as reasons new technology and the threat of competition causing newspapers to become more flexible and innovative. Meanwhile, those who believe that things will worsen blamed increased competition, especially from interactive or other electronic media; a continued decline in readership, and newspapers' slowness in adapting to change. More than one-fourth of those questioned said the biggest competitor for ad dollars these days is broadcasting. Other major competitors listed were direct mail, other papers and yellow pages. Less than 1% of respondents said telephone companies ? which aggressively have entered electronic publishing in recent years ? were a major threat. TV shopping networks and interactive media each were cited by only 1% of those polled. In five years, respondents expected that cable and direct mail will be the media to beat. As for the reasons that executives gave for seeking careers outside newspapers if given the chance, 32% of respondents ? most of them advertising directors ? said newspapers are a declining or mature industry. Meanwhile, 26% of those surveyed said opportunities for personal growth are limited; 24% cited low pay, and 21% contended that hard work is not rewarded. Editors accounted for the majority of respondents in each of these categories. Of the 1,000 questionnaires that were mailed, nearly three-fourths were answered and returned, a response that AOR president Anthony Casale called phenomenal and surprising. Of 732 respondents, 348 were publishers, 180 were ad directors and 200 were editors. The rest worked in other areas. This is the second in a series of FACS/AOR studies. The first examined environmental journalism; a third will consider changing needs of advertisers and media buyers. Complete copies of the new report are available free through AOR. 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